More than 15 years ago, I enthusiastically endured the Friday night multitude in Times Square to experience Jerry Maguire. As a fan of Tom Cruise and writer/director Cameron Crowe, my high expectations were more than met. The film was well written, well-acted, and the laughs came early and often. I was particularly moved by the loving and supportive interplay between Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and his wife Marcee (Regina King). Fully realized, multidimensional black characters are so rare, unfortunately, that such portrayals continue to be a welcome surprise. I also enjoyed watching the friendship develop between Rod and Jerry (Tom Cruise). Theirs was a relationship devoid of clichés and stereotypes. Or was it?
The pivotal “Show me the money!” scene dramatizes the differences between Rod and Jerry. As the head of a close-knit family, Rod is shown in the kitchen with his wife, brother and son. He is physically present and emotionally available. Though on the phone discussing business, Rod supervises his son’s behavior and guides him to remove his plate from the table. His family’s needs and wishes are Rod’s top priorities. Jerry, on the other hand, is in his office isolated from others both physically and emotionally. Jerry is concerned only about himself as he desperately struggles to retain his clients after being fired.
On the surface, Rod and Jerry need each other to salvage their respective careers. As always, however, the subtext is way more interesting. As you view the scene, imagine that Rod is in the same room with Jerry and positioned directly behind him. Note Rod’s pelvic thrusts to the rap music and Jerry’s defeated posture. What do you see? Does the scene reflect any racially divisive fears, beliefs and/or stereotypes? How does this affect the scene’s dynamics?
“My girlfriend is black, and I’ve learned a lot about racism including the fact that it hasn’t gone away, especially in American business. But on a social level there’s less prejudice than there was. So I figured, let’s put another hero up there.” – George Lucas
Red Tails, the action drama about Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, opened in theaters nationwide today. George Lucas’s herculean efforts to get the film made – which included personally financing the project to the tune of $93 million – are well documented. Over the past few weeks I have received numerous messages via e-mail, Facebook and radio strongly urging support of this film during its opening weekend. This is supposed to send an unmistakable message to Hollywood power brokers to make more “positive” black films. Really? I think not. Begging through the box office – as proven time and time again – is not an effective way to get more racially balanced, multi-dimensional and realistic images from the film industry. Also, despite the film’s historical significance and Lucas’s good intentions, Red Tails is not worthy of the cause célèbre status that has been bestowed upon it by many in the African American community.
“I’m making it for black teenagers. They have a right to have their history just like anybody else does.” – George Lucas
Of course everyone should know and claim their history, but it is the height of paternalistic arrogance for Lucas to determine what that should be for black teenagers. Red Tails was historically shallow and predictable in a cartoonish way. More attention was given to the action scenes than to story and character development. There was no sense of the black pilots’ familial ties, experiences in America, or expectations and hopes. Their motivations – beyond patriotism – were unclear. Other possible motivating factors, such as making their communities and loved ones proud and/or expanding career options, were not explored. One of the pilots carried a photo of black Jesus which was very progressive for the 1940s. Unfortunately, that pilot crashed and was badly burned. I leave you to interpret that subtext for yourself.
The pervasiveness of racism à la Jim Crow was watered down when dealt with at all. One such scene took place in the segregated officers’ club. The Tuskegee Airmen were invited in by the white officers and treated to drinks after a successful mission. One of the Tuskegee pilots, Smoky (Ne-Yo), chose to share an oft-told, corny joke about color. The gist of the “comic” story was that whites turn various colors depending on their emotions, yet they call black people colored. The white and black officers shared a laugh. Kumbaya! This unrealistic, contrived, feel-good moment glossed over the complexity of racism. During the Jim Crow era, I find it hard to believe that black officers would enter a segregated officers’ club, even if invited. They would create their own gathering space to relax and let loose. If they did take that risk, however, they certainly wouldn’t tell a joke about whites while there. However, in Lucas’s world, all is well over a beer. How does this fanciful nostalgia benefit black teenagers? I have no idea.
“I realize that by accident I’ve now put the black film community at risk [with Red Tails, whose $58 million budget far exceeds typical all-black productions]. I’m saying, if this doesn’t work, there’s a good chance you’ll stay where you are for quite a while. It’ll be harder for you guys to break out of that [lower-budget] mold. But if I can break through with this movie, then hopefully there will be someone else out there saying let’s make a prequel and sequel, and soon you have more Tyler Perrys out there.” – George Lucas
So now the man who gave us Jar Jar Binks sees himself as the savior of black films? Lucas means well but he just doesn’t get it. Nor do the others who have rallied around Red Tails as if its fate determines the future of black film production. Let’s be clear, if Red Tails nosedives at the box office, it will not be because it has a predominantly black cast or lacked publicity. It will not be because we do not support films with “positive” black images. Nor will it be due to lack of interest in the courageous Tuskegee Airmen. It will be for one reason and one reason only – it is a bad film. Period. I must confess that it has been fun watching Lucas, who has profited greatly through the Hollywood system, recreate himself as an outsider for the purpose of promoting this film.
“Long-term power is more important than short-term money.” – Warrington Hudlin
Once upon a time, we had independent filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams who made films specifically for black audiences. Hollywood noticed their popularity and made their own, more expensive versions of black films. Black audiences, favoring the splashier productions, abandoned the independent films and have been at Hollywood’s mercy ever since. Hollywood is not changing, but we can by no longer settling for whatever is tossed our way. We can actively seek and support independently produced movies that are entertaining and offer a variety of images and stories.
Brothers and sisters, fret not. Starting next month, all six of the Star Wars movies will be theatrically re-released in 3-D. Whatever fate befalls Red Tails, George Lucas is going to be alright. What about us? When will we finally accept that it is a waste of time to solicit an industry that misrepresents us over and over again? Soon, I hope.
As we head into the movie awards season, many critics have compiled their best and worst lists for 2011. Due to the subjective nature of the selections, one critic’s gem is sometimes another critic’s dud. Who is to say what is truly best and worst? It’s really all a matter of opinion. I prefer, however, to focus on what and why some films are unforgettable to me as opposed to ranking them. Here is my countdown of 2011’s most memorable movies – for reasons ranging from good to bad to notorious:
- The Tree of Life – Two hours of my life I’ll never get back; convoluted and overrated.
- Jumping the Broom – This should have been a movie on Lifetime – great looking cast, but shallow and predictable.
- The Help – Imitation of Life meets Steel Magnolias. That’s all.
- The Skin I Live In – Not my favorite Almodóvar film, but a thought-provoking examination of identity.
- J. Edgar – This eagerly anticipated Eastwood/DiCaprio collaboration proved to be a major disappointment. How? By favoring flashbacks over a linear narrative, safely skimming the surface in regards to the extent Hoover’s constitutional violations destroyed lives and movements, and therefore missing the opportunity to draw parallels to current domestic and foreign policies.
- Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol – Fifty is the new 35. Thanks to the physically fit Tom Cruise and his daring stunts, I now look forward to turning 50.
- Trust – Though much is borrowed from Ordinary People, this film about an online sexual predator is a must-see for all teenagers and parents.
- The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 – Taking in a Friday matinee with a theater full of truant teenagers was the most fun I’ve had at the movies in a very long time.
- Incendies – A wonderfully told, haunting story that stays with you long after the last frame.
- Kinyarwanda – Though specific to the Rwandan genocide in 1994, its themes regarding forgiveness and unity are universal and timeless.
- The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 – Ironically, my most memorable movie moment of 2011 was courtesy of an Angela Davis interview from the 1970s. Davis’s insightful response resonated deeply in my soul as she articulated what I am often too emotional and/or frustrated to clearly express. In doing so, Davis held up a mirror through which we can see ourselves as we truly are. For that I am grateful.
What are your most memorable movies of 2011 and why? Please share.
Happy New Year!
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“The black woman is the mule of the world.” — Zora Neale Hurston
Being a black woman in America is to be rendered irrelevant, irreverent and invisible on a daily basis. Nowhere is this reflected more than on television and in the movies. We are often shown denigrating each other, raising hell, trying to snare a man à la Flava Flav, or vexing over the identity of the baby daddy. Other depictions include the jump-off, Mother Earth, confidante, tormentor, victim, and objects of ridicule by men in drag. The lack of non-stereotypical, relatable images is why the release of such films as Waiting to Exhale, For Colored Girls and, currently, The Help become major events for many of us. In groups we attend screenings and gather for live and online discussions. Some are just happy to see themselves, while others yearn for realistic, multi-dimensional characterizations that, unfortunately, are few and very far between. Perhaps there is an unspoken wish for inspirational and empowering images – a shero – instead of the usual cautionary tales. As for me, my expectations were tempered long ago.
Seeing the staged production of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf for the first time in the 1970s was an unforgettable experience. Blown away by the poetry, storytelling and the performances, I left the theatre feeling rejuvenated and ready to take on the world. I doubted the play with its non-linear narrative could be successfully adapted to film. My skepticism quickly changed to a strong sense of foreboding when I learned that Tyler Perry would be at the helm. From the business perspective, I understand why Perry was selected. His track record at the box office is impressive and he has cultivated a loyal audience. However, Perry was totally inappropriate for the material. His forte is comedy – exaggerated, over-the-top comedy with stereotypes and clichés. His few attempts at drama have been heavy-handed and well-intentioned at best.
Perry’s interpretation of For Colored Girls left me emotionally drained and in need of a nap. The plotlines were thin and the characters were not well developed. There were some great performances, including standouts Anika Noni Rose and Phylicia Rashad. There were, however, missed dramatic opportunities. Yasmine/Yellow (Rose) was denied the chance to confront her rapist. Instead her “redemption” was to slap his cold, lifeless face as he laid in the morgue. The story would have been greatly enriched and more depth added to Yasmine’s character if we had followed her efforts to put the rapist behind bars. Instead a clumsily, contrived situation was introduced to wrap up her storyline. What a copout! In frustration I could only imagine how much more directors like Gina Prince-Bythewood, Kasi Lemmons and Julie Dash would have brought to the production. I really appreciate August Wilson for insisting on director approval before his plays could be adapted to the big screen. Can you imagine Perry or one of the Wayans directing Fences?
In the 1934 version of Imitation of Life, Bea (Claudette Colbert) gets rich from her maid’s (Louise Beavers) pancake recipe. Delilah (Beavers) wants no share of the profits and is content to continue as Bea’s maid. There is a scene where the two women turn in for the night. Bea ascends the stairs as Delilah descends to her room downstairs. That scene summed up the movie: Black people are happy in their place – tending to the needs of whites. That same sense of “selflessness” is present nearly 80 years later in The Help, which begins and ends with Aibileen (Viola Davis) comforting and encouraging white females.
“You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” – Aibileen
Like Delilah, Aibileen is greatly responsible for Skeeter’s (Emma Stone) success. When Skeeter is offered a new job in New York, Aibileen and Minny (Octavia Spencer) assuage Skeeter’s so-called guilt and encourage her to go – as if there was ever a possibility Skeeter wasn’t taking off. Meanwhile Aibileen is unemployed with little to no prospects, and Minny appears destined for a life of servitude with no hope of upward mobility. In my reimagined scene, Skeeter informs Aibileen and Minny about her job offer. She justifies her departure while Aibileen and Minny smile politely and exchange knowing looks. As Aibileen and Minny reflect on the injustice of being used once again, their words wish her well but their eyes do not. That would have been more realistic.
“I found God in myself and I loved her. I loved her fiercely.” – Ntozake Shange
I discovered Nothing But a Man in college. It is now one of my favorite films and the best onscreen depiction of a relationship between a black man and black woman and how it is impacted by racism, loss of income and a child from a previous relationship. Initially, most of my attention was drawn to the commanding presence of Ivan Dixon as Duff. I thought his wife Josie (Abbey Lincoln) was too agreeable. However, with maturity I began to appreciate Josie’s quiet strength and admired how she continued loving Duff, even when he didn’t love himself. In the midst of hate, violence and patriarchy, Josie did not allow herself to be defined by others’ fears, insecurities and ignorance. She retained a kind, loving nature and strong sense of self. Now that’s a shero! It was then that I began to recognize those qualities in many of the women around me like my mother, grandmothers, aunts and friends. This is why I don’t get upset or put much stock into how we’re portrayed and perceived anymore. People who want to believe the worst are going to do so regardless. I don’t need television and movies to affirm me. There are sheros all around me, and every now and then I see my shero smiling back at me in the mirror.
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“You know who should have won. My friends can’t be straight with me! It was rigged. That’s like family. They can’t give it to… a stranger!”
Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever
During a pivotal scene in Saturday Night Fever, Tony Manero (John Travolta) realized that his dance contest victory was more about popularity than performance. Tony was a great dancer, but he knew he had been out danced on that particular night. His friends, however, were not that objective. They voted based on how they felt about Tony. His preferential treatment – though fictional – exemplifies how the Oscars sometimes determines its “best.” It is not always about the quality of the work. At times, in addition to popularity, the determining factors include sentiment and compensation.
As an avid observer of the Oscars for many years, I have experienced countless moments of disbelief. The first one occurred during the 1974 Best Actor contest when Art Carney won for his role in Harry and Tonto against a field that included Jack Nicholson (Chinatown) and Al Pacino (The Godfather Part II). No doubt Carney, a comedic actor and older than his fellow nominees, was the sentimental favorite. The unlikely win by Carney provided a more compelling narrative: “Honeymooners” star conquers drama with Best Actor win! I’m sure the voters also felt that Pacino and Nicholson, unlike Carney, would have more opportunities to be nominated and eventually win. Nicholson would go on to win the following year, and Pacino would finally win in the early 90’s (more on that later).
Another compelling narrative that has been irresistible to Academy voters is: Actor triumphs in directing debut! Such was the case with Robert Redford in 1981 and Kevin Costner in 1990. Ironically, both wins came at the expense of Martin Scorsese’s superior work in Raging Bull and Goodfellas, respectively. Even though Ordinary People is a fine movie that survives the test of time, there is no way it should have topped Martin Scorsese and Raging Bull in the Directing and Best Picture categories. The same is especially true for the woefully overrated Dances With Wolves in regards to Goodfellas.
Then there is what I like to call the “make-up” Oscar which is used to compensate an actor for his or her body of work. As much as I love Pacino, his 1992 Best Actor Oscar was more about recognizing the sum total of his remarkable career, which includes The Godfather and Dog Day Afternoon, than his over-the-top performance in Scent of a Woman. Many – and I include myself in that number – felt that Pacino’s Oscar came at the expense of Denzel Washington’s extraordinary turn in Malcolm X. Perhaps Washington’s loss was meant as a slap to Spike Lee, an outspoken Hollywood outsider, or due to the controversial title character.
Nine years later, however, Washington won the Best Actor Oscar for his 2001 performance in Training Day. Yes, it was fun seeing Washington play the bad guy, but based on what I’ve seen of him during interviews and by his own admission, Washington’s performance, ad-libs and all, was not much of a departure from his actual personality. Nevertheless, the Academy did not miss the opportunity to compensate Washington for Malcolm X while at the same time punishing that year’s frontrunner, Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, for behaving “badly” at a movie awards show in Great Britain. Crowe’s Oscar snub was made even more obvious when the film he starred in took home the major awards.
TO BE CONCLUDED…
Part 3: The Illusion of Inclusion